The almost-audible screeching of the gears from the government shutting down has given way to a disquiet as furloughed employees ponder their fates and unpaid excepted employees trudge into their offices wondering at what distant date their paychecks might materialize. Washington has muddled into and out of shutdowns before, but this one has the potential to be dangerously historic. The current impasse may become the straw that breaks the camel’s back for qualified and competent federal workers whose morale, across agencies, has been sinking in recent years.
The civil service is in no state to withstand the shock of a prolonged shutdown. In the 2018 Best Places to Work report, the estimable Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group identified that, across the government, less than 50 percent of employees believed that awards in the employees’ work units depended on how well employees performed. Similarly, fewer than 50 percent of employees believed that they had sufficient resources to do their jobs. This sense of dejection is hardly helped by the recent executive order that froze federal workers’ pay and scrapped a previously announced increase.
To put an even finer point on this crisis in federal morale, it is notable that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) workforce is particularly troubled. DHS — the home of both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — is the agency most essential to the current fixation on border security. Yet, DHS’s workforce has consistently suffered from low morale. In 2012, it ranked 31 out of 33 agencies in the Best Places to Work survey. By 2015, little had changed. Congress, two years later, felt the need to introduce the Department of Homeland Security Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement Act of 2017.
DHS is now one of the agencies subject to the shutdown. Categories of personnel in both CBP and ICE fall under the status of excepted service. Professing concern about border security — while treating the department largely responsible for maintaining that security as a political pawn — is blatantly hypocritical.
Even without a crisis of morale, the federal government is not well-positioned to attract and retain human capital. Government agencies are already struggling to bring highly skilled employees, such as those in the tech sector, on board. Once in the door, there is no guarantee that employees will stay with the government. For a number of years, the government has had to contend with the current workforce dynamic of employees who expect to cycle through a number of jobs in their lifetime. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the median number of employees had been with their current employers for only slightly more than four years. This trend appears set to continue with millennials who enter public service. Despite the fact that the majority of millennials express satisfaction with their federal employers, the median millennial still spends only slightly less than four years in government.
This combination of factors is not viable and threatens to bleed the civil service of the human capital it desperately needs. We can expect the already-declining satisfaction among federal employees to take a sharp downturn if this crisis continues for much longer. Undoubtedly, numerous qualified employees are already using their newly enforced furlough free-time to fine-tune their resumes. What this portends in the long-term is not promising, with the employees in the civil service increasingly representative of those unable to acquire more lucrative and rewarding positions.
The federal workforce is now experiencing a perfect storm — buffeted by antipathy from various quarters across the political spectrum, contending with realities of workforce dynamics, and slipping into discontent. A shutdown — especially a prolonged one that forces employees to consider other jobs — can only wreak long-term havoc on the effectiveness of the U.S. civil service. Holding the U.S. government hostage for petulant insistence on a “wall” is creating far broader security concerns, and it threatens to hollow out our essential corps of public servants.